Tuesday, June 2, 2015

J.B.’s Jubilee

Brodsky on his balcony at Muruzi House (date unknown) / Image courtesy of brodskymuseum.com

If Joseph Brodsky were still alive, he would have turned seventy-five on Sunday, May 24th, so the web has been awash with Brodskiana. Everybody and his brother, it seems, have got something to say about the man. Me too: I wanted to post something in his honor on the jubilant day itself, but at the time—unfortunately yet quite appropriately—I was hard at work on my Brodsky contribution to a new volume entitled American Writers in Exile. (To learn how he fits into that category, read my essay when the book comes out.)

First off, in the biggest news, it looks as though the Brodsky apartment museum in Saint Petersburg is finally opening after years of fundraising, bureaucratic hoop-jumping, negotiations, and logistical troubles (including a battle against 32 types of mold). This is the space that Brodsky wrote about in his essay “In a Room and a Half,” located in the Muruzi House at the intersection of Liteyny Prospect and Pestel Street, where he lived with his parents for almost two decades. Tatyana Voltskaya notes that the famous room and a half was open last month, fittingly, for a day and a half: several hours for journalists on May 22, plus a full day for the birthday festivities on May 24. Now it’s closed again, with plans to reopen for good after renovations wrap up sometime this winter. The museum doesn’t have much of a web presence yet, especially in English, but when the apartment finally opens and stays open, it should obviously land at the top of the must-do list for all Brodsky enthusiasts. I certainly plan to visit the next time I’m in Petersburg.

Back in April, another domicile-museum opened in the village of Norinskaya (or Norenskaya), in the Arkhangelsk region, where Brodsky served out his internal exile in 1964 and 1965 for “social parasitism”—that is, freeloading (тунеядство). During his time there, he wrote and translated poems, published occasionally in the local paper («Призыв»), and worked on a collective farm. Ironically, Brodsky later called it one of the happiest times of his life. The museum is situated inside a peasant house formerly owned by the Pesterev family, with whom Brodsky stayed during his sentence. According to Lenta.ru, the exhibit includes “things that Brodsky used: a chair, a table, a couch, a kerosene lamp, a tank for developing photographs, and the plywood cover from a package sent to Brodsky by his father in Leningrad, which was found during the restoration of the house.”

Interestingly, both new museums have met with opposition from a certain hyperpatriotic element in the Russian crowd, despite the poet’s growing popularity of late. (Just last month, in fact, Alexander Genis and Solomon Volkov were discussing Brodsky’s transformation from “esoteric” to “popular” poet in Russia.) In Norinskaya, a group of locals balked at the five-million ruble price tag and filed a suit demanding that the museum be closed and the regional governor be punished for supporting it:

[Brodsky] was exiled to our region for social parasitism. But instead of thanking the leadership of the USSR for his early release, he emigrated to the U.S., took a passport there under the name ‘Joseph Brodsky’ [spelled Джозеф Бродски, as opposed to Иосиф Бродский], and began to slander the Soviet people.

The suit also asks for a hundred thousand rubles in compensation for the “moral harm” the plaintiffs experienced. This whole episode reminds me of an article I posted about a few years ago, when another Norinskaya resident and loyal communist said the following:

And just who is Brodsky? A parasite, a freeloader! … How could they have given him the Lenin Prize, that lazy good-for-nothing?! … He was a smart bastard. But Russia is a fool! Gave him a prize… America, America! He’s a leech, and they put up a fucking plaque for him!

The two gentlemen quoted above are indeed different people, but they’re clearly kindred spirits.

Meanwhile, in Petersburg, members of the city’s Legislative Assembly have been trying to put a law on social parasitism back onto the books, which then inspired a group of citizens to write a letter regarding Brodsky, the city’s most famous parasite, to the local media and government. In it, they demand an immediate halt to “the squandering of budgetary resources that have been directed toward the construction of a museum in honor of the villainous freeloader I. A. Brodsky.” They continue:

This former citizen of the USSR, who grew up to fight against Soviet power, led a parasitic way of life and was sentenced to 5 years under Article 209 for social parasitism! Together with dissidents and turncoats, U.S. citizen Brodsky did everything he could for the collapse of our Great country and was rewarded in turn with the Nobel!

I find the implication behind these various statements fascinating: in order to be a Russian artist, you’ve got to be a patriot first. No straying from the party line! So much for the individualism that Brodsky prized.

In sunnier news, Brodsky’s 75th jubilee brought his daughter, 21-year-old Anna Alexandra Maria Brodskaya-Sozzani, to Saint Petersburg to take part in the birthday celebration. American born and now living in England, she knows almost no Russian, and it was her first trip to her father’s native land. Novaya Gazeta ran an interview with her, where she speaks in favor of the open access movement and her desire to give up her rights to her father’s work, all of which is surprising, given the tight copyright control that the Brodsky estate maintains. During her stay, she met her older brother and sister, and she also visited the apartment museum, which she enjoyed, as it gave her a “sense of time”:

When I touched the one authentic table that had been preserved, that was a special moment for me. … I didn’t feel any particular spiritual connections, but I was moved by the great amount of work that was done by the museum staff.

The wisest thing she said in the interview, I think, was about her personal engagement with her father’s writing:

I’m certain that my conception of my father and his work will change over the course of my whole life. My personal, inward development, as well as my actions, will change under the influence of his writing. And that’s nice.

Two other Americans influenced by Brodsky have also been active this birthday season. First, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, co-founder of the legendary Ardis Press, published a memoir last month, Brodsky Among Us (Бродский среди нас), which has made a huge splash in Russia. Weirdly, the book was written in English but never published in that language, though I bet its Russian success might garner its author a book contract. In fact, Cynthia Haven closes her essay on the book by saying,

Those of us who knew him will never forget him – those who didn’t, especially, need this book. Although the champagne corks are popping in Russia, most of Brodsky Among Us takes place on this side of the world – it’s an American story, about an American career. He is one of us.

Haven says the book is “flawless” and that she “wished it wouldn’t end.” High praise! Alexander Genis and Solomon Volkov are equally as enthusiastic, with Genis noting that the book should be valued as a much-needed “memoir about the American Brodsky, a book by an American about Brodsky.”

Finally, Ann Kjellberg, the executor of the Brodsky estate and the editor of his Collected Poems in English, recently posted an apologia for the English style of Brodsky’s self-translations, which critics have ridiculed for decades. Some of the points she makes are expected, some are farfetched, but one of her final comments really goes out into left field:

Many poetries have a high or courtly style and a colloquial style that poets draw into strategic conflict. … By keeping the spoken and the colloquial so central to our tradition, we may have deafened ourselves to the beauty and value of innovations like these.

Indeed, Brodsky used to complain that the criticisms leveled against him for his work in English were precisely the same as those leveled against him by his Russian detractors. One difference may be that challenging orthodoxies goes down more easily in literary circles when the orthodoxies are Soviet.

I appreciate her argument about “a high or courtly style,” but suddenly those of us who find Brodsky’s English occasionally awkward are labeled as tyrants? As Languagehat put it, “This will not do at all. The last bit is plain bullying … and she or the editor should have thought better of it before letting it go public.”

In her interview, Anna Brodskaya-Sozzani mentions that among her favorite poems is the one her father dedicated to her, “To My Daughter.” As it happens, that poem is a good one to close with, since it was written in English and displays some of the linguistics quirks that Kjellberg gets defensive about. Here are the last two stanzas:

On the whole, bear in mind that I’ll be around. Or rather,
that an inanimate object might be your father,
especially if the objects are older than you, or larger.
So keep an eye on them always, for they no doubt will judge you.

Love those things anyway, encounter or no encounter.
Besides, you may still remember a silhouette, a contour,
while I’ll lose even that, along with the other luggage.
Hence, these somewhat wooden lines in our common language.

(Collected Poems in English 452)

Yes, certainly, the language here is “somewhat wooden”—and notice that the poet knew it himself—but it’s also poignant and archetypically Brodskian. Late poems in English like this one help to bridge the gap between his wonderfully inventive Russian texts and his weirdly out-of-tune English self-translations. I’m glad we’ve got them.


  1. it’s also poignant and archetypically Brodskian

    Indeed; it's as immediately recognizable as a stanza of Wallace Stevens. It's fascinating that a poet can develop such a distinctive style in a language not his own (and using it for such wooden poetry)! I too am glad we've got his English poems, even if they're not great poems; they fill out our picture of him. I hope I get a chance to read the Ellendea Proffer Teasley book, and I thank you for your excellent post!

  2. As for the Norinskaya locals, my initial thought was that they can be filed under "Old Man Yells at Cloud," but then I remembered that in Russia such things can have serious consequences.

  3. They do indeed. What I found most shocking in recent Brodsky-related news was the Petersburg initiative to reinstate the law against тунеядство. Talk about regressive!